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Making Just Intonation Play Along Tracks for Your Performing Ensemble (Using Tonal Energy and GarageBand)

There are a few things that would be helpful to know about my music teaching philosophy before reading this post.

1. I believe that tone production, intonation, balance and blend are central to teaching performing musicians. I prioritize them much higher than fingering technique, rhythmic precision, and even reading comprehension.

2. The way I structure my band classes starts with, is focused on, and always revisits those core ideas.

3. I have accumulated a vast variety of tools and teaching strategies to meet my goals of having superior tone quality, intonation, balance and blend. One of the most essential tools I use is the Tonal Energy Tuning app.

Tonal Energy Tuner

What is Tonal Energy? A hyper charged, power-user app for musicians that has many advanced features, including...

- Tuning drones that can be triggered polyphonically

- Feedback as to how in tune a performer is, which includes a delightful happy face to depict good or questionable intonation

- Drones and feedback can be adjusted to different temperaments

- A metronome (with more features than nearly any alternative on the App Store) that can be used separately or at the same time as the tuning drones

- Analysis tools that depict amplitude and intonation on an easy to read visual graph 

- Recording and play back practice tools for musicians to listen back to their performance

- Automated metronome pre-sets that can be sequenced 

See the video below. I will first depict the tuner playing a Bb drone, then I will show how it can model a Bb major triad all at once. Then I will turn the tuner to just intonation mode, and you will hear that the third and fifth of the chord are appropriately adjusted so that they are in tune with the Bb root. Next, the video will demonstrate how the metronome can be used in combination with these drones.

Imagine now that a student is playing a scale along with Tonal Energy. By leaving the tuner in just intonation, and centering around the key area of Bb major, every note of the scale that I touch will resonate accurately with the Bb, giving the student an accurate reference to blend into.

Developing An Inner Ear for Diatonic Intervals

Much of music is made up of scales. For a student to learn how to most accurately tune different intervals and chords, I have the drone running in the background during most of my teaching in whatever key area we are working in. I then move my finger to the correct notes of the melody to model and reinforce what good intonation would sound like. See below for an excerpt of a song my beginning students might play.

In the video below, watch as I play this song by dragging my finger along to the melody. This happens with a metronome to reinforce the beat. I like that TE has the option to speak counts out loud. In my experience, this really reinforces a concept of strong beats, weak beats, where in the measure the performer is. Other tuning apps have the counting feature as an option, but the sounds in TE sound more natural and less computerized.

Making Play Along Tracks in GarageBand

As you can imagine, I am doing a lot of dragging my finger along while students play for me. This gets tedious. I also want my students to be able to hear these pitch relationships when they practice, so I have begun recording them into play along tracks. How do I do this?

Inter-App Audio Apps and Audio Extensions in GarageBand

In the iOS GarageBand app, audio input is usually performed using either software instruments or by recording audio directly into the device with the microphone. But what you might not know is that you can also create a track that is based on the audio output of a third party audio app. If you have ever used a DAW, think of Inter-App Audio Apps and Audio Extensions like plugins. Once launched, you are kicked into a third party interface (much like using a reverb plugin from Waves or a synthesizer from Native Instruments) which then adds to or alters the sound of your overall project. In a more recent GarageBand update, Apple categorizes Inter-App Audio and Audio Extensions under the External option when you create a new track. 

Audio Extensions are effects that alter your tracks like reverbs and EQs, while Inter-App Audio captures the audio of a third party app and records it into its own track in GarageBand. You can browse the App-Store for Audio Extensions that work with GarageBand. 


Recording an Inter-App Audio App Directly Into A GarageBand Project

Watch in the video below as I set up an Inter-App Audio App track with Tonal Energy. What I am going to do next is press record, and record my justly in tune play along of Lightly Row into my GarageBand project. I will do this using the euphonium sound. The euphonium drone is one of the roundest, darkest, and fullest sounds, while also containing a great range, so it is effective for most instruments to play along to while also modeling a rich, full, resonant sound.

Accurate Note Input with MIDI Controllers

In this video, you can really hear how sloppy the transition from one pitch to the next is when I drag my finger. Notice also that I did not play repeat notes. It is difficult to play the same pitch twice in a row without Tonal Energy changing itself to that key area. One way around these challenges this is to set up a portable MIDI keyboard with Tonal Energy. The one I have settled in is the CME X-Key with Bluetooth.

It has a sleek look, is very small, and has low key travel. It has buttons for pitch shifting and octave jumping. And Tonal Energy adapts to it in just intonation mode! Watch in the video below. As I change which chord I am playing, TE automatically snaps the third and fifth of each triad in tune, relative to the root. For my Lightly Row performance, I can now hold a Bb drone on in one hand, while playing a melody in the other.

Embellishing The Track with Other Instruments

The resulting play along track is alone pretty useful for students. Let’s make it more fun by adding a drum track.

We can make it even more fun by embellishing with bass and other instruments. I like to change up the style of these play alongs. Sometimes I don't even pre-record them, I just improvise along with my students to keep things fresh. Be careful though. These software instruments are NOT justly in tune, so too many of them can defeat the purpose. I try to combat this by having the drone be the loudest thing in the mix. Notice in this recording I have tried not to create any motion in the accompaniment that interferes with the consonant intervals in the melody, so that the listeners ears can remain focused on the drone for their reference.


Well, that's it! I can trigger these in rehearsal, sectional, and even share them with my students for home practice. Regular practice with tuning drones has really turned around my band's sound, and gives students the foundations for long term ear skills that will help them to HEAR what is in tune, not just respond to the commands “you're sharp!” and “you’re flat!”

The Class Nerd - Episode 4: Drafts

This week on The Class Nerd, Craig and I pick apart our favorite iOS productivity app, Drafts.

I always explain Drafts as the app that most diminishes the cognitive load of my music teaching job and beyond. Gone are the days of writing down notes, todos, and other reminders on whatever scrap piece of paper is nearest to me only to forget everything when its most important. Drafts is the fastest way I know to take down an idea. I don't even have to think about what kind of idea it is because Drafts offers a rich list of actions that can send the text to other apps.

This episode might be out most technical yet, but don't let that scare you off. Drafts is one of those apps that is as complicated as you want it to be. You can get a ton of productivity out of it with very little learning curve.

Listen to the episode here.


App of the Week: Drafts 5

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My ability to handle the cognitive load of teaching middle school band is largely supported by a wonderful app called Drafts, made by Agile Tortoise. I will detail a little bit about how I use this app below, but I want to first say that the developer of Drafts, Greg Pierce, very generously chatted with me about it on my podcast recently. Greg also has a background in guitar, ethnomusicology, and folk studies. He has an interesting journey towards app development, which we also talked about on the show. Listen to the episode here.

So what is Drafts? Drafts is the starting point for all text on my iPhone and iPad. It sits on the dock, right under my thumb, and I press it every time I have any kind of thought that I don’t want to slip away. Drafts opens to a blank white screen and a keyboard so you can instantly start typing. Adding a new Draft is as simple as tapping the plus button. You don't need to worry about what kinds of thoughts these are, or what kinds of apps you should be capturing them in. They can be todos, messages, emails, future blog posts, anything. Picture me at the front of the classroom before band rehearsal. 70 students pouring into the room. Instruments blaring loud. Countless questions being thrown at me at once. Chaos all around. From the podium, I leave Drafts open alongside my sheet music and type anything that comes to mind. If a student tells me they don’t have a 2nd trombone part to Air and Dance, I write a note in Drafts. If a flute is broken, I start an email to the repair shop requesting for them to come pick it up. If I want to take general notes on our rehearsal progress, I start typing that in another draft. Even if I remember I need eggs at the grocery store later, I type that too!

A beautiful, distraction free, user interface, as soon as you launch Drafts.

A beautiful, distraction free, user interface, as soon as you launch Drafts.

Drafts pairs perfectly with the sheet music app forScore in split view mode.

Drafts pairs perfectly with the sheet music app forScore in split view mode.

All of this stuff is categorized in the inbox where I can easily access it by swiping to the right. Here I can view any current or past archived draft, flag important ones, or send them to the trash. Once I am ready to process it all, I swipe left to reveal actions. Actions can do many things. At the most simple level, they send text to other apps like messages, email, a todo app, or Twitter. But actions can be heavily customized. They can perform multiple steps on text, and even run JavaScript on them. In the example below, you can see that I have a variety of drafts. Meeting notes, a few tasks, a start to a grocery list, a text to my wife, and the beginning of an email. To process these I would use the following actions, respectively: Send the meeting notes to the Apple Notes app, the tasks go to OmniFocus (where I manage all of my todos), the groceries go into my Reminders app grocery list, the text to my wife goes to Messages, and the email goes to Mail. Many of these actions happen in the background, meaning that I don't leave Drafts, and can therefore process them really quickly. You don't need to be a fancy pants to get awesome actions into Drafts, by the way. Some of my most frequently used actions are built into the app. There is also an Action Directory where you can steal the wonderful actions that others have already made. 

Swiping right reveals all unprocessed drafts. 

Swiping right reveals all unprocessed drafts. 

Swiping left reveals all of the various actions you can perform on drafts.

Swiping left reveals all of the various actions you can perform on drafts.

Drafts 5, the newest version, was released recently. The app is free which means there is absolutely no excuse not to give it a try. Some of the power features like creating your own actions and using automation require a subscription price of $1.99 a month or $19.99 a year.

This is the Edit Action screen. Actions are highly customizable. This particular action a) saves meeting notes to Evernote, b) saves tasks begining with "@" to my OmniFocus task app, and c) emails the notes to others in attendance.

This is the Edit Action screen. Actions are highly customizable. This particular action a) saves meeting notes to Evernote, b) saves tasks begining with "@" to my OmniFocus task app, and c) emails the notes to others in attendance.

I have always treated Drafts as a starting point for text. Interestingly, the new version has added some features that encourage using it as a note app replacement. You can now tag notes, create lists with checkable boxes, and even create custom workspaces that you organize your text into (paid feature). I am not sure if using Drafts this way is for me, but here are some ways I have been experimenting with it…

Processing Text

I have a "default" workspace depicted by the blue star icon below. Navigating workspaces is as easy as tapping custom icons in the lower left. My default workspace is where all of my unprocessed notes go. These generate a badge that appears on the icon of the Drafts app so that I don't forget to act upon them later. This workspace resembles the extent to which I was using the previous version of Drafts.

My default workspace. This functions like I used to use Drafts before workspaces became available.

My default workspace. This functions like I used to use Drafts before workspaces became available.

Simple Lists

My next workspace is where I keep active lists of things like recommended movies to see, blog ideas, and even a list of things I do every time I migrate to a new Mac. I can automatically append this list by pressing the "Add to list" action (available here) and then choosing which list to add to. 

My lists workspace.

My lists workspace.

If a friend recommends a movie to me, I quickly write it in a draft without fiddling around with apps on my phone and getting distracted from conversation. Later, I append it to my movie list in one tap.

If a friend recommends a movie to me, I quickly write it in a draft without fiddling around with apps on my phone and getting distracted from conversation. Later, I append it to my movie list in one tap.

Blog Drafts

My next workspace is for blogging. I usually write my blog posts in a third party text editor called Ulysses which means that I usually get started in Drafts and then tap an action that sends the text there. But sometimes I do like to spend a little bit of time in Drafts writing before I take that step. For these types of drafts, I now have a tag called "blog" that allows them to show up separate from my other notes that need to be processed.

Blogging workspace.

Blogging workspace.

Lesson Planning and Note Taking

My last workspace is called Sectionals. My band program has weekly classes for each instrument. Once a week, I see the flutes from my band during one period, the clarinets the next, etc. I do some lesson planning for these sectionals in a note app called Bear. In those same notes I also write down things that happen in the sectionals. Things I assigned, things I assessed, things I said, students absent, instruments I repaired, etc. Fiddling through my notes app to add these notes was getting cumbersome and was distracting me from engaging with my students. So I created a series of sectional related actions that enable me to automate part of this process. The “R1, R2...” actions in the image below are examples of text expansion. Tapping buttons like these expand text that I commonly type. R1 stands for Rotation 1, which I would type if I were taking notes on the first week trumpet sectional for the quarter. The other actions automatically append my sectional notes. For example, tapping SW Trumpet would take my draft and append it to the bottom of that particular note in the Bear note app.

My sectionals workspace. Custom actions can be organized into different groups. This particular one has actions that expand common text that I type in my sectional notes like which weekly rotation we are on. It also contains buttons that take the text and append them to different notes, depending on which instrument group I am in front of.

My sectionals workspace. Custom actions can be organized into different groups. This particular one has actions that expand common text that I type in my sectional notes like which weekly rotation we are on. It also contains buttons that take the text and append them to different notes, depending on which instrument group I am in front of.

My sectional note in the Bear note taking app, now appended by Drafts.

My sectional note in the Bear note taking app, now appended by Drafts.

As you can see, Drafts is a simple note app with infinite customizability. Check it out today at Get Drafts.

Black Friday App Deals

Every Black Friday, tons of apps go cheap or free on the App Store. I always use this opportunity to score a bunch of apps I have been waiting on, particular higher priced apps. 

The best resource I have found for keeping track of every deal is MacStories. Check out their blog post on The Best Deals for iPhone and iPad Apps, Games, and Accessories. They have already started collecting apps on sale and will be updating it all throughout tomorrow and in the coming days. It catalogues apps ranging from iOS apps to Mac apps to tech deals on Amazon. 

Happy app purchasing!!!

The 6 Best Automation Apps for iOS

Interested in learning some apps this summer that will make your school year easier in the fall? Here are my favorite automation apps for iOS and a very brief explanation of each. Don't worry, I am planning on blogging about a few of these at length later this year. 

Note: All of these apps take a little bit of an investment to learn but the payoff is HUGE. You will find yourself doing things on your iPhone and iPad you never thought were possible. If customizing your own automations seems daunting, every one of these apps has a user-submitted gallery where you can download actions that other people have already made.

1. Workflow 

Download here

Workflow is an automation tool that allows you to string together various different actions so that they can be initiated with a single tap. The list of actions you can choose from is dense and many of them are easy to understand without any coding experience. You could do something as simple as open the camera, take three pictures, and generate a .gif file all in one tap (see below). This idea is novel of course. The real power is in figuring out how to take tedious actions that require multiple taps and apps and string them all up into one tap using Workflow’s rich list of integrated apps. One of my favorite Workflows looks into my Dropbox folder for a PDF of a seating chart, generates a copy, and opens it in Notability on my iPad, where I can scribble information about my student’s progress with an Apple Pencil. (See this workflow depicted below). 

Apple just purchased Workflow earlier this year. My hope is that this will allow users to better automate Apple’s own apps and even system level actions down the road. 

2. Drafts

Download here

Drafts is a clean and minimalist text editor that allows you to send text to other apps. Think of it as the starting point for all text on you iPhone or iPad. It functions like a simple, text based, note taking app, until you swipe left and reveal a series of actions you can perform on the text. You can perform actions as simple as posting your text as a Facebook status, Tweet, text message, or email. You can also create actions so complex that they can include JavaScript. One of my more basic Drafts actions takes a list of items I have typed in a rush and imports them all into my Grocery list, which is a list I keep in the Apple Reminders app. 



Download here

IFTTT (If This Then That) is a web service that allows you to create If-Then statements that trigger actions to happen in apps. First, the user logs into all of their connected services (Facebook, Twitter, Wordpress, Philips Hue Lights, Gmail, etc…). Then the user creates “Applets” where something that is done in one service can trigger something to happen in another service. For example, I could say “IF I am tagged in a Facebook post, THEN save that photo to my Dropbox. Or “IF I favorite that YouTube video, THEN save it to my Evernote notebook and tag it videos.” Of course, you can get really crazy with home automation apps and do things like “IF someone mentions me on Twitter, THEN flicker my Philips Hue light bulbs red.” 

4. Editorial 

Download here

Editorial is a text editor meant primarily for longer form writing. If you have a blog and an iPad, this app really shines. The app supports plain text, Markdown, and TaskPaper. Markdown is a syntax that allows users to create formatting like headings, bullet lists, tables, and expressions for the web without actually using HTML. For example, when I wrote this blog post, I did not click around in the toolbar to make each of the sections of this post into headings. Instead I just typed '##' in front of each of them, and my blogging service of choice, Squarespace (which interprets Markdown), automatically did the formatting for me. See below for an example.

TaskPaper is an amazing app for Mac that allows you to create checkable todo lists using only plain text. The syntax that the app uses also goes by the same name - TaskPaper. It is a really friendly way to work with checklists without taking your finger off the keyboard to format things. See the example below to get an idea what TaskPaper does. TaskPaper doesn’t have an iOS app, so the fact that Editorial works with TaskPaper files is great!

Much like Drafts, Editorial also has powerful user customizable workflows that you can perform on your text. You could have it post to your Wordpress blog in one tap, for example. My favorite Editorial Workflow takes a list I wrote in the TaskPaper format and uses it as a template for reoccurring projects in my task app of choice, OmniFocus. Certain projects that I perform over and over again contain similar tasks. For example, I always do the same fifteen to twenty things every time I put on a band concert at my school. I keep a checklists of these tasks stored in Editorial so that every time I have a concert, take a sub day, or go on a field trip, I tap one button in Editorial and it imports the list into OmniFocus, complete with due dates, flags, and tags. 

5. Launch Center Pro

Download here

Launch Center Pro is kind of like a springboard (the screen of apps you see when you unlock your iPhone) only it launches actions instead of apps. Actions can do almost anything. In fact, all of the apps in this post can be launched from within Launch Center. For example, I can publish my Workflows as buttons in Launch Center. I can create buttons in Launch Center that trigger IFTTT Applets. Launch Center actions can also launch apps, turn lights on and off in my house, take me into specific lists within my todo app, and more! 

Launch Center Pro took me a little more time to get my head around because it assumes that the user knows a little bit about something called x-callback-url. This is a protocol that most of the apps in this post take advantage of but don’t quite expose to the user. With Launch Center Pro, I felt like I really had to learn this system before digging in. Fortunately, MacStories has a great tutorial that you can read here.

6. Launcher

Download here

Launcher is a much simpler and friendlier version of Launch Center Pro. Setting up actions is very straightforward and a number of them are available as pre-built templates. Launcher lives entirely inside of a Today Widget, which is a special widget that you can invoke on iOS by dragging down from the top of the screen or by swiping to the right of your first screen of apps. Launch Center Pro also has a widget available that does much the same thing, but you might find that you prefer Launcher if the learning curve for LCP is steep.